Tag Archives: Mary Gillgannon

Your Book… Or the Editor’s?

By Mary Gillgannon

A writer recently posted a question on the RMFW site about working with an editor and whether you have to make all the changes an editor suggests. I faced a similar situation a couple of years ago. Here are some ideas on how to deal with difficult editing situations:

Do you have an agent? If you do, then having them serve as the go-between sometimes helps. It’s an agent’s job to fight for you and your book. They can contact the editor and find out how strongly he or she feels about the changes. And if there are some changes you really don’t want to make, then the agent can help you negotiate a compromise.

Did the editor acquire the book, or get assigned to it? An editor who has no personal stake in your book may be more critical, or even want to put their stamp on the book by making changes that fit their vision. In general, if the editor acquired the book, then he or she really likes your story and the changes they’re suggesting are truly geared towards improving it. Having a sense of the editor’s motivations can help.

What do your critique group and/or beta readers think? They are familiar with your story, but still have some objectivity because it isn’t their book. Having their input can help you decide if the suggested changes really have merit.

Search your heart. Has the editor pointed out things that deep down you know are a problem for you? Sometimes we know there are issues but we fight fixing them. Revising is hard work and not very much fun. But sometimes it needs to be done. It’s an editor’s job to make us face flaws and help us fix them.

Talk to the editor. Find out if he/she has specific suggestions on what you need to do. Be certain that you know what they really want. Ask questions. Suggest some solutions and see what they say.

Search your heart, this time for your real motivations. Is your ego is bruised by the editor’s implied criticism of your abilities? Or do the changes truly affect the story in a way you’re not comfortable with?

Pick your battles. Decide what changes you’re willing to make and what changes you want to fight. Then negotiate. Be positive. Thank the editor for helping you improve the book. Tell them about the issues you agree with and how you plan to fix them. Then tell them the things you don’t want to change and explain why, focusing on the book and your vision of the story. Be firm but polite and reasonable.

If they insist on all the changes, you’ll have to decide how important this contract is. I’ve known authors who refused to do the changes, gave back their advance and walked away. That takes a lot of courage, and may not help your career much, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do for your own peace of mind. Even if you don’t walk away, if the editing experience with that publisher has left you demoralized, you need to move on to another publisher. Life is too short to stay in a business relationship that makes you unhappy.

In my own situation, after conferring with author friends who had read the book, I agreed to make about two thirds of the changes and fought the rest. It wasn’t pleasant and I had to go over the editor’s head to the senior editor who had acquired the book, but in the end, I won. But it left me depressed and discouraged and somehow “tainted” the book in my mind. That’s why I decided to look for another publisher. I finally found one and have been much happier with my editing experiences with them.

The Only Writing Advice You Really Need

By Mary Gillgannon

I recently read a blog by a newly published writer about rejection. Her worst one came from an editor who basically suggested she quit writing: “You cannot write, you have no talent, and I prefer not to be bothered anymore.” Ouch.

But the point of the blog was that the writer ignored the total put-down, kept writing and ended up having her book published. As part of her blog tour, she tells her story, the many moments of self-doubt, the sense of defeat, the struggle with depression. She ends with this heartfelt advice: “Listen to me, new writers, and listen carefully. Repeat after me: I will not give up. I can take a break. I can change the genre. I can even go on vacation. But I will not give up! Repeat that to yourself daily.”

Wonderful advice, and not only for “pre-published” writer. Many multi-published writers struggle to keep going as well. You can have several books out and seem to be on your way, and then it all falls to pieces. Once again you face the dreaded specter of failure and futility you thought you’d banished when you got published.

In fact, of the writers I know who have “given up” (at least temporarily) this is the more common scenario. They did well in the beginning, but career reversals and market and editorial changes demoralized them to the point that they put aside their writing for months or even years. When you’re unpublished, you at least have a clear goal to work toward and that can keep you going a long time. But when your career path starts to resemble walking through quicksand, it can be even more difficult to maintain that passion and drive and keep fighting onward.

This was brought home to me last weekend when I got together with a good writer friend who has changed genres and is facing a slump in sales. The result is that she is currently without a contract after thirty-some years of being published. I know that this is temporary and she’ll find her way. And she knows it, too. But I’m pretty sure she’s experienced some moments of self-doubt and occasionally wonders whether it’s all worth it. The one thing on her side is that she’s changed her career direction a few times already, and she knows that there’s only one thing you can do: Find a new pathway and keep slogging forward, i.e., never give up.

But that’s not to say that sometimes it isn’t a good idea to take a break. Pull off to the side on your writing journey and rest a while. That’s what another writer friend is doing. For the last few years she’s faced serious health problems, while still keeping her writing career going. Despite surgeries, doctor appointments and chemo, she’s forced herself to meet deadlines and obligations and even write proposals to get new contracts. But after a long battle on two fronts, she’s finally decided it’s time for a rest. She needs to get the joy of writing back. The thrill of creation and the excitement of having your characters and story come to life. And she’s realized the only way to do that is to stop pushing herself.

But it will only be a vacation, a chance to give herself a little breathing room. To stop worrying about deadlines or how many pages she’s written. For her, the pathway forward right now means staying in the same place and catching her breath. But she won’t stop writing altogether, because long ago she also took those magic words to heart:  Never give up.

The blog post that inspired this one can be found at: http://www.wildwomenauthorsx2.blogspot.com

Pigeon-holed or typecast? It can happen to any writer

By Mary Gillgannon

I know how picky readers can be, but I never realized it would affect me until I was analyzing the sales of my indie published books. I have twelve books available, and sales of those titles vary widely, and always have. Some of my books I’m lucky to sell five a month. Others sell several times that. The books that sell well are the same ones each month. Even though I have other titles in the same sub-genre, there is very little carryover to them.

I started to think about what qualities my better-selling books share and realized that they all have alpha heroes and intense conflict between the hero and the heroine. (An alpha hero is an old-fashioned, macho, larger-than-life, domineering male.) When I was first published, I got plenty of criticism from my critique group, reviewers and sometimes readers for my ultra-masculine heroes and conflict-ridden storylines. (As one reader put it, “If I wanted to experience a couple fighting all the time, I could have just stayed with my first husband.”) Because of that, and also because I wanted to explore different types of characters, I started to write books with more external conflict and more complex and subtle heroes.

Those books were never as popular as my earlier ones. Initially, I blamed my declining sales on the fact that historical romances in general were in a slump. But now the sub-genre seem to be doing well, and I can no longer ignore the cold hard figures of my sales reports. There is a definite type of book that appeals to my readers.

It’s pretty frustrating. Like the writers I mentioned above, I don’t want to write the same story over and over. And it doesn’t help that lots of successful writers write books with beta heroes who don’t clash dramatically with the heroine. Why does it work for them and not for me? Maybe it’s my voice or writing style. Or that I get so deep into my heroes’ viewpoints that if I make them too nice they come off as wimpy.

At the same time, knowing what appeals to “my” readers is useful. I’m planning extensive rewrites of the last two of my backlist books this summer, and now I have a clear direction. I need to make my heroes more forceful and larger-than-life, and increase the conflict between the hero and heroine.

The irony is that I’m rewriting these books because I wasn’t happy with the way they turned out the first time, mostly due to editorial input. Now, once again, I can’t simply “follow my muse” as I revise them. It would be foolish to ignore what my readers apparently want. But I’m not about to give up on writing different types of stories. Maybe if I keep exploring I’ll find a new formula that will attract new fans. And even if that doesn’t happen, I have to keep growing as a writer or it wouldn’t be any fun. And I’m at the point in my life where fun is more important than selling books.

Paying for it

By Mary Gillgannon

In the month since my latest book came out, I’ve dutifully attempted to promote it. I updated my website, guest-posted on nearly a dozen blogs, tweeted and Facebooked (in my own pathetic way), had a Goodreads giveaway, and engaged the help of the other authors on my publisher’s promotion loop to get the word out. But two weeks after the book’s release, it became clear that my efforts weren’t working. My book wasn’t gaining traction, it was standing still. If a bestseller is the pinnacle of a high mountain, this book was only a few yards up one of the foothills. I decided it was time to heed the old adage, “You have to spend money to make money.”

I’ve spent money on promoting my books in the past. I've purchased ads, had postcards and bookmarks printed and paid for mailings, the only promotion options available in the days before the internet. But there was one crucial difference: Back then, I was spending money I’d already made. When you’re earning several thousand dollars on an advance, it’s a lot easier to part ways with a few hundred here and there.

But even back then, I was pretty cautious about investing a lot of money in promotion. Mostly because I wasn’t convinced it worked. I’d known authors who spent nearly every dime of their advances on promotion and their sales weren’t that much better than mine. Instead, I took to heart the advice most editors and agents gave back then: “Put your time and energy into writing the next book.”

That really was the conventional wisdom in those days. Now publishers expect you to promote. Some even demand it. I’ve submitted to publishers who put as much emphasis on the author’s platform and social media presence as they do on the quality of the manuscript. A lot of it is because the market has shifted to ebooks, which are marketed so much differently. In the old days, if your publisher got your book in the stores and it had a reasonably good cover, you could expect to sell thousands of books without doing much of anything. The important “promotion” took place between the publisher’s sales staff and the bookstore buyers and wholesale distributors. The main hurdle was getting your books out there, and you had no control over that.

Now, “distribution” is the easy part. Anyone with a little tech savvy can get their book published. The ease of that part of the process clearly shows, as the number of ebooks available increases exponentially each year. The gatekeepers are gone and we now have a flood.

So, in an effort to try to get a tiny bit of notice for my book, I decided to spend some money on promotion. But it’s not easy to decide where to throw those bucks. The best sites for promoting ebooks are picky. They want you to have x number of positive reviews, and even if you have those, they may still reject you. They also want you to offer it free or at a discounted price. Since my book was published by a small press, I don’t have any control over the price.

But to test things, I went to a less well-known site and paid a small fee to promote one of my indie-published books, for which I’d dropped the price to $.99. In terms of sheer numbers, the approach was successful. On the day my book was listed, I sold 150 copies. Considerably more than the half dozen or so I usually sell in a month. In terms of money earned for money invested, I’ve come out a little ahead, but just barely. With the regular price of $2.99, I make nearly $2.00 per book sold. On a $.99 book I make about 35 cents. So I have to sell nearly six times as many books to make the same money. Plus, I have to earn back the $45 fee I paid to have my book promoted. If the bump in sales continues for a while, or it helps increase the sales of my other books, it will be a good investment.

But that doesn’t help my newest book. For it, I bought an ad on a romance ebook site. It was on sale for $99 and runs for a month. It’s a site that has been sending me newsletter emails for years and I always delete them without opening them. So, we’ll see if it makes any difference. And I’m still looking around, trying to find other avenues for ads. But there’s a limit to how much money it makes sense to spend.

I suspect the slow sales on my latest book may be related to the book itself. I’ve always written historical romances, but this book (a time travel/reincarnation story) takes place primarily in the present. While some readers bounce back and forth between historical and contemporary romances, a lot have a preference for one or the other. In some ways I’m marketing this book to a brand new audience. So, maybe I should do what I’d really like to be doing (instead of agonizing over these things) and finish the next book in the series. Maybe the second book will help me get a few more feet up the mountain.

Luck and Timing

By Mary Gillgannon

“How lucky do you feel you are?” My first editor asked me that question as we were discussing promotion for my second book. She went on to say that for most of the successful authors she knew, luck had played an important part in their careers. Her advice was to do “as much promotion as you need to do to feel in control”. Her words were a huge relief to me, as I had little time or money to spend on promotion back then.

My sense of luck being the deciding factor has not decreased over the years. The people I know who have been most successful are talented and hard-working, yes. But no more talented than other authors who saw their careers stall and sometimes fizzle away altogether. The key has always been writing the right kind of book at the right time. In other words, luck.

Now with the changes in the publishing world, there are other “factors of chance”, as I was reminded by a recent article in The New York Times. The article discussed the impact of the Kindle Unlimited program on indie authors and profiled an author named Kathryn Le Veque. Le Veque has published 44 ebooks and until recently was selling 6,000 ebooks a month. Although the main point of the article was that with Kindle Unlimited, Le Veque has had to lower prices to maintain her income and sell more books for fewer dollars, there were other intriguing details revealed in the profile: Le Veque has been writing fiction for over 35 years and had created a huge stockpile of books. For 28 years, she submitted her books to traditional publishers and had them rejected. But then she started self-publishing and was so successful she was able to quit her day job after three months and write full-time. Despite her enormous body of work, to maintain her sales, she has to keep churning them out, and to help her, she has hired a part-time editor and two part-time assistants.

Like most success stories, this is a case of luck, or good fortune, or whatever you want to call it. This particular author’s ability to publish a large number of books at one time, and rapidly write more, is a large part of her success. But that strategy of writing one book after another failed her for 28 years. Then Amazon came along and it was a perfect storm: a market that was hungry for books and that allowed her to directly reach the sub-group of readers who read her genre, plus her huge stockpile of product and ability to keep producing it quickly.

Most of the successful indie authors I know, and a fair number of the traditionally published ones as well, have a similar strategy: write fast and write series, multiple linked books that appeal to a specific group of readers. But being able to do that is a matter of luck. Even if I quit my day job and did nothing else, I could not write six, eight, ten books a year. Ms. Le Veque says that on a good day, she writes 12,000 words. I doubt that in the last few years I’ve written that many in one week!

Another interesting thing I noted is that nowhere in the article does Le Veque mention promotion, social media or on-line presence. While she probably has her assistants do some of that now, I doubt she was able to do much in the beginning. Which confirms my suspicion that even though on-line promotion has made the difference in a lot of authors’ careers, it is not necessarily the “magic bullet”. Because what worked two years ago, or even two months ago, may not work now. Again, it’s a matter of timing, just like it always was. And timing is a matter of chance, i.e. luck.

For some people, the idea that luck is so important may be incredibly frustrating. For me, it’s a relief, just like it was years ago when my editor told me not to bother spending my advance on promotion. It gives me a way out and makes me feel less like a failure. I’m a dutiful person, who wants to do a good job and be responsible and dedicated, and that extends to my writing career. But lately I’m overwhelmed with everything I supposed to do for my career, and I’m getting pretty frustrated and unhappy. And even though it’s discouraging to know I’ll never write fast enough to flood the market and develop an audience like this writer did, it is heartening to hear the story of someone who was successful because they kept writing, rather than they made their name by promoting their work.

Another Reason To Write

By Mary Gillgannon

In recent months I have read about several studies showing that people who use their brains in their jobs and in their pastimes age better and retain more mental acuity. Many of articles quote the old cliché “use it or lose it”. Certainly dementia, Alzheimer's and declining mental capacity are serious concerns as we get older. A lot of our risk factors we can’t do anything about, like genetic predispositions and our previous exposure to toxins in the environment (which I personally believe is a causative factor in the high levels of dementia these days). But there are lifestyle changes we can make to slow down the process, and one of these is keeping active mentally and challenging our brains with new tasks and experiences.

I figure as writers, we’re way ahead of the game on that. Writing itself is a complex mental process and the demands of the current market often push us to explore new genres and techniques. We’re always learning and trying new ways of doing things. If we don’t, we’ll be left behind and see our writing careers stagnate.

That was really brought home to me in the last few weeks. I’m having my website redesigned, and my web designer is pushing me to have a newsletter and oh, am I on Pinterest yet? I figure I was doing good to get my blog going again! I opt out of a lot of the new marketing techniques, figuring I don’t have enough time to do everything. But I am gradually adding things as well. I figure I have to, or there is no way I can keep up. And everything I add means learning new systems and techniques to utilize those systems.

And there is the writing process itself. I’m working on my second reincarnation/time travel story, which is mostly set in the present, and once again I’m finding it very different than writing historical novels. There is research. But not the kind you can find in books, like I did in the old days, or even on the internet. To make my twenty-something heroine realistic, I have to figure out how she would talk, what slang she would use, and how she views the world. It helps that I have a daughter that age. But it helps even more that I work with the public in my job and get to observe people of all ages and backgrounds. And that I travel and spend significant time in airports, hotels and other public places.

Still, it’s a difficult kind of research for someone like me, who tends to get caught up in my current task or be occupied with my own thoughts. I have to learn to pay attention to people in my environment. To immerse myself in the modern world. It’s not something I would probably do if I was a normal person and didn’t write books. For that matter, I suspect I probably wouldn’t even be writing a book that demands this kind of research if the writing market hadn’t become so difficult. I would probably still be writing historical novels and not branching out with contemporary ones.

A part of me longs for the old days, when writers got to hide away in their offices or writing nooks and write the books that came to them easily. When they didn’t have to learn more and more technology and keep up with everything new. When they didn’t necessarily have to grow and change and stretch and take risks to have any hope of keeping their career going. But it’s probably a lot better for me this way. I’ll not only (hopefully) keep selling books, but I’ll age better, too. All of us writers will.

The Perils of Being a Woman Writer and First Things First

By Mary Gillgannon

It’s not easy being female and a writer. As a woman, you’re less likely to be taken seriously or to gain the respect of the public and your peers. If you write romance, as I do, the trials are even greater. The implication is always there that anyone can write “one of those trashy little books.”

I’m used to that kind of attitude and mostly shrug it off. But I’ve recently become aware of another burden of being a woman who writes fiction. Females are trained from early childhood to be empathetic, social and “helper bees.” We learn to support other people, to encourage and commiserate and be there for them. In many, many ways this is a very good thing. Civilization and probably humanity itself would not have survived without female social skills. But sometimes we take things too far, to our own detriment.

Last spring, I signed a contract with a small press. In my welcome letter, I was told I needed to join the loop for the publishing house’s authors and also a loop where those authors share promotional ideas. Dutifully, I did so.

The number of emails I get daily has been creeping up for years. It includes advertising emails as well as the RMFW loops and an on-line loop for writers of Celtic romance. Sometimes things get pretty active on these loops. I’m used to getting up to 100 emails a day.

But suddenly, with the new loops, my emails doubled. My publisher’s writers are a very enthusiastic, active bunch. Many of them have regular blogs, run contests and other promotions and on-line activities. And they like to celebrate anything good and, occasionally, commiserate over bad things. New covers, new releases, contest wins, great reviews, terrible reviews, all those things result in a flurry of emails expressing congratulations and support. It gets almost ridiculous sometimes, with people thanking people for posting a comment thanking them for a blog post, etc.

But even though they sometimes take it overboard, I will admit the loop members are truly wonderful about promoting their fellow authors. They tweet and share on Facebook. They offer blog opportunities and sign up to take part in on-line parties and special promotional events. With a new book coming out at the end of the year, I need to do some of these things. And I can hardly ask the members of these loops to promote my release or my blog or whatever, if I don’t do some of the same things for them.

But all of this patting each other on the back and even the genuine promotion of reciprocal tweets and shares, comes at a price. Time.

I used to be able to get through my emails in half an hour or so each morning. Delete the ads, except for those I want to check out later (I have a bad shopping addiction.), respond to those celebrating a special event or success, and keep in touch with friends and family (mostly done on weekends, when I have more time). But recently I realized I was spending over an hour each morning dealing with email. And another hour or more if I take time to post on Facebook, write for my sadly-neglected blog, or do other writing business.

And I can’t afford to lose that time, because mornings are my best writing time. Every extra minute I spend on email is a minute I’m not writing. Which leads me to the second thing addressed in this blog: My decision to make writing my book the first thing I do when I sit down at the computer each morning.

Two other writers and I recently did a six-week writing program at the library where I work. When we got to the class on promotion, each of us mentioned the axiom we’ve heard for years: “The best thing you can do for your career is write the best book you can.”

Whether that’s true or not, I do know that one of the best things you can do for your career is have another book published. Because the way it works is that sales lead to more sales, especially in a series. And I’m not going to have another book in this series I just started unless I make writing it a priority.

At the same time, I worry that I’m being a bad “loop-member.” That I’m being selfish and unfair if I don’t show support to my fellow authors but expect them to help me when my book comes out. The guilt, oh, the guilt! But I guess I’ll just have to live with it. The reality is, writers write. And all the rest of it has to be lower priority.

A Writer’s Destiny

By Mary Gillgannon

When people find out I’m a writer, they often ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” The implication is that it must be a struggle to come up with things to write about. Frankly, that’s never been my problem. My problem is finding the hours and days and weeks and months (and sometimes years) it takes to transform my story ideas into books.

Even without considering my latest project, I have at least ten books waiting for me to finish them. Some are hard copies sitting in a closet in our family room. Others are gathering dust on floppy discs. A few are saved on jump drives. (Technology marches on.) And that still doesn’t count two completed manuscripts that I haven't figured out what to do with.

Just to finish all of those books would keep me busy for the next ten years. And that’s if I didn’t get any new story ideas, which is unlikely.

My challenge has always been “what to write?” Throughout my career, I’ve vacillated between writing what I thought I should write and the books that really called to me. Right now I’m in a dutiful phase.

Last spring I sold a reincarnation romance. I pitched it as a series, so as soon as I sold it, I felt obligated to drop the story I was working on and write the second book in the series. But it’s gone very slowly. So slowly that recently I began to wonder if maybe this just wasn’t the right time to write this book. Was it really normal to spend so much time staring at the blank computer screen? Was this a sign I should be working on something else?

But then I reminded myself that ideas and the beginnings of books always come easy to me. It’s the middle part that is a challenge. And while this book may take longer than I’d like, in the end, finishing it will mostly be a matter of persistence and hard work.

And patience. I have to accept that I’m notorious for coming up with story ideas that take me into realms I don’t have any experience in. I’ve been known to flounder for years. With the result that the book I’m most proud of took me nearly ten years to finish to my satisfaction. Not to mention I ended up writing about twice as many words as the final manuscript.

I guess this is just the way I have to do things. People talk about “plotters" and "pantzers”. Well, I’m a plodder. Which means that every book takes as long as it takes. It’s a nightmare career-wise. But I doubt there’s anything I can do to change it. I just have to hope that some day I’ll finish a book at the right time and all the stars will line up and I’ll finally find writing success.

And if that doesn't happen? I’ll just keep plodding along, following my destiny, one book at a time.

Twenty Years of Sharing the Dream

By Mary Gillgannon

Many RMFW members are attending the Colorado Gold conference this weekend. I, unfortunately, have to miss it due to a trip with my daughter later this month. But I’ll be waxing nostalgic the whole time. I went to my first conference over twenty years ago, and I can still remember what a magical experience it was.

I started writing fiction about two years before that, and had a completed historical romance and a second one started. I was actively marketing the first one with no success. Back then, I worked in a public library (where I’m still employed). It’s an ideal job for a writer because everyone, co-workers and patrons alike, love books and are incredibly supportive. So, of course, when my co-workers found out I was going to a writers’ conference, they were all convinced I was on the verge of my “big break”.

I was more skeptical. I’d heard all my life how hard it is to get published. But that didn’t stop me from lying awake most of the night before my pitch sessions. On some deep level, I was convinced that this was my chance and I was terrified I’d blow it.

The actual appointments with an editor and agent were kind of a let-down. The editor, who’d heard me read my manuscript opening in the previous day’s critique session, listened rather impatiently to my pitch and then said, “Send it to me.” I asked, “All of it?” and she said “yes.” The agent interview was even terser. She asked me if I saw this book as a series and I said “yes”. She nodded her head and told me to send her the first three chapters and a synopsis. Of course, she didn’t offer to waive the agency’s $50 reading fee, which meant that it would take me months before I felt flush enough to send it to her.

But it wasn’t really those encounters that were memorable about the conference. It was the exhilarating experience of knowing, for the first time in my life, I was with people who understood and shared my dream. It was that sense of camaraderie and the excitement of feeling that anything could happen for any of us, that I remember the most. Quite a number of the people I met at that conference are still involved with RMFW. Two of them have become my dearest friends.

The other memory I have is of rushing back to my room on the second night, getting out my notebook and immediately starting to revise the beginning of my book. After nearly a year and a half of writing and revising, and revising again, I had, deep down, sensed that the book wasn’t quite “ready”. But after attending several Colorado Gold workshops, the light bulb went on. I finally knew what was wrong and how to fix it.

And the real magic did happen. Nearly six months later, I got a letter from an editor who worked at the same publishing house as the editor who’d asked me to send her my manuscript. This second editor wrote that she “loved it” and wanted to buy it. Thus began the most exciting time of my life.

A lot has changed in twenty years. Nobody writes on a typewriter anymore (like I did with my first draft). It’s all about web presence now, and tweets and likes and blog hops and a dozen other things that didn’t exist back then. But some things never change. Like the joy of being part of an organization that’s all about sharing dreams, and the thrill of knowing you’re setting off on the great adventure of being a novelist with a couple hundred compatriots by your side.

Colorado Gold rocks!

A Muse By Any Other Name

By Mary Gillgannon

In a post a couple of months ago, I was discussing the creative process and mentioned my muse “not speaking to me”. Afterwards, I began to think about the concept of a muse, what it means to me and why I think of mine as female.

The word probably originates from the Greek word mosis, referring to desire or wish. In Greek mythology, the muses were nine goddesses, all daughters of Zeus, who were said to have power over inspiration. The term has come to mean someone who has a deep influence on another person's creative work. Historically, it was most often used by male artists to describe women they loved and made the subject of their work. But nowadays, the term doesn’t necessarily refer to a relationship, person or even an entity. The word can be used simply to describe your own inner source of creativity and inspiration. It’s a tangible term for an intangible process. A way of personalizing and making real something that no one really understands:  how the creative process works.

Being writers, we want to assign words to the process, to find a way to describe it. Over the years, I’ve encountered a variety of metaphorical descriptions. People talk of “dipping into the creative well”, as if there was some sort of subterranean pool in our subconscious that we could drink from. James Joyce wrote that all the real creative work was done by “the nigger in the basement”. A more politically-correct writer, Barbara Samuels/Barbara O’Neal, uses the term “the girls in the basement”, to describe the source of her creative ideas. Another writer friend once described it to me by saying there was a wall separating her from all these wonderful, magical ideas and that once in awhile, she felt she could reach under that wall and pull things out and use them in her writing.

I suppose I see my “muse” or the source of my inspiration and ideas, as being a remnant of my childhood self, the little girl I was before I learned to focus on what I was supposed to focus on, rather than letting my thoughts roam free. That’s probably why I think of my muse as female, because she represents the fanciful, imaginative child I once was, who sang and told herself stories for hours and hours.

I think almost all children are naturally creative. Daydreaming and making up stories is a huge part of how they learn and interact with the world. But the ability to tap into that fluid “anything is possible” outlook gets damaged over time. When a child is chided for daydreaming or simply told to “pay attention” in school or when doing chores, they start forming the habit of focusing on the “real” world, the things they can directly perceive through their senses and through reasoning. Their connection with that fertile, free-flowing part of themselves gets cut off, and gradually what was once a constant rich flow of creative ideas slows to a mere trickle.

Years later, when we decide to take up a creative pursuit, we may find it difficult to access what was once the very essence of our world. Instead of having all sorts of fantastical ideas swirling in our heads, we get trapped in our mundane reality. We suffer from writers’ block. We get stuck and the words won’t come. The well hasn’t run dry, but we no longer have access to it. Instead of a river right beside us, our creativity hides in a deep dark reservoir, buried far below all the layers of the responsibilities, demands and distractions of our lives.

Over and over, I find myself using water metaphors to describe creativity. Perhaps that’s because, like water, creativity and inspiration aren’t something you can grab onto or really contain. It keeps moving and changing, like the process that defines it. My muse is a water sprite, skipping over the waves, glimmering in the sunlight. Sometimes I catch sight of her for long enough to capture a bit of her magic and use it in my work. I wish she wasn’t so elusive and that I was better at creeping up on her so I would have time to really study her. But like a lot of enchanted beings, she remains always on the move and a little out of focus, lost to the all-too-sensible and realistic lens through which my adult self views the world.